Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Holy Week - Tuesday

The Gospel for Mass in the Roman Lectionary today (John 13:21-33 & 36-38) focuses, as does tomorrow's Gospel from Matthew on the part played by Judas Iscariot in betraying Jesus to those who were seeking to kill him. Not infrequently Judas is portrayed differently from the other disciples, making him seem sinister, villainous, but there is no evidence to support this in the stories scripture tells. At the least, iconography makes him out to be left-handed and in the ancient world this could be enough to lead to someone being regarded with suspicion. 
"See, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table." (Luke 22:21) 

Judas is shown to occupy an important position at the table, reaching out with his left hand towards  the same dish as Jesus in Giampetrino's copy of Leonardo's original Last Supper, and knocking over the salt with his right, as he does. His face is impassive, whereas most of the others are gesturing with astonishment - "Lord, is it I?" John, on the right of Jesus is being asked by Peter "Ask, who it is he means." Nobody is named, but Jesus responds to John's enquiry by saying that it is the one to whom he gives a piece of bread that he has dipped in the supper dish.

John identifies the recipient as Judas, but it's hardly likely that he was the only disciple to be favoured this during a meal. Jesus however, then gives Judas leave to go and attend to other duties as treasurer of the common fund. Was there something understood between them? An unfinished argument about the way forward, leading to Judas taking an initiative nobody else has agreed to? 

There is another Jude or Judas among them, described as Judas (not Iscariot). The man himself is never mentioned without being referred to as Jesus' betrayer. John also speaks of Judas Iscariot as a thief because of his abuse of the common fund. He is the target of communal anger for what he does in bringing Jesus to the attention of the religious authorities. Yet, without his vain disastrous attempt to force Jesus to demonstrate his power and reveal his true nature, the circumstances in which God's infinite mercy and compassion could be revealed, would not have occurred. This paradox is beyond our comprehension, but as St Paul says:

"At just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly." (Romans 5:6)

On the face of it Judas acts on his own, over and against the group. His story is an illustration for all disciples in every generation that warns of the fatal risk attached to doing this. We are as Paul says:

"Members of one another." (Eph 4:25)

We would do well never to forget this.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Holy Week - Monday

Today's Eucharist Gospel reading from John 12:1-8 recounts the other supper Jesus and his disciples took part in, the week before Passover, with Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Mary scandalises Judas by anointing the feet of Jesus with precious ointment. He interprets this for those present as a significant gift in advance of his burial. None of them are aware of just how great are the threats he faces, or the dangerous crisis that overshadows them all. It's the last reported gesture of loving kindness he accepts before violence breaks out upon him, and his Passion begins.

Speaking of the ointment and Mary's action Jesus says

"Leave her alone. She bought it that she might keep it for the day of my burial." (John 12:7)

There are many and varied artistic representations of this moment, but this story revives the memory of St John's City Parish Church in Cardiff, which has two fine Victorian stained glass windows which portray this story, both made and installed in the last years of the nineteenth century. No explanation has ever been offered for this co-incidence. But it seems this story caught the imagination of some wealthy people in that era when the city was growing rapidly due to the coal export boom. It was perhaps a way of encouraging self effacing generosity in relation to God and his church.
Variations of this story appear in all four Gospels. Mark (Mk 14:3-9) and Matthew (Matt 26:6-13) relate that it's Jesus' head that gets anointed. Luke and John relate that his feet are anointed. The setting of the story is different in Luke's version, which comes earlier, in a section of teaching about forgiveness and love, in Galilee, perhaps Capernaum.

"And there was a woman in the city who was a sinner; and when she learned that He was reclining at the table in the Pharisee's house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, and standing behind Him at His feet, weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears, and kept wiping them with the hair of her head, and kissing His feet and anointing them with the perfume. Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner." (Luke 7:37-39)  

Matthew and Mark's version is set in the house of Simon the Leper in Bethany. John's version is also set in Bethany, but among familiar friends at the house of Lazarus and his sisters. plus the disciples. All three state that this anointing is to be understood as a prophetic sign of Jesus' impending death. 

Anointing the head was a common gesture of hospitality (cf Psalm 23:5b), along with washing the feet (cf John 13:5). Anointing the feet of the sick for healing, and of the dead, as part of the mourning ritual before burial was also common custom. It may be understood as a gesture of healing towards a body that is tired and in need of soothing at the end of life's rough journey. Jesus here is near the end of his journey with the Good News of God's reign.

Neither of the windows in St John's church depict the anointing, but both depict the offering of the 'alabaster jar' Luke speaks of.  In one of the windows is inscribed a modest tribute to the one in whose memory the window was installed: "She did what she could."

Jesus did not rebuke anyone for paying such loving attention to himself, but what he did say poses a challenge to anyone who has to give an account of themselves as his disciple.

"Inasmuch as you did/didn't do this to the least of my little ones, you did/didn't do it to me." (Matt 25:40 & 45) 

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Palm Sunday

This day takes its name from the Gospel story of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, recounting the way he was honoured by crowds of people cutting down palm branches to cover the streets he rode through on a donkey, as if he was a celebrated hero. 
In places where there are few Palm trees, it is customary to import branches for use in ceremonial re-enactment of the story, and weave crosses from leaves to bless and give to worshippers as a reminder of this occasion, and what happened in the days that followed.

Palms are among the best known and cultivated plants, with about 2600 known varieties. They have been important to humans throughout much of history, in regions of tropical, subtropical, and warm temperate climates. Many common products and foods are derived from palms, making them one of the most economically important of all plants. Today they are a popular symbol for the tropics and vacations. Historically they were symbols representing victory, peace, and fertility. They are part of the biblical landscape, now as they were two thousand years ago.

"Then they came to Elim where there were twelve springs of water and seventy date palms, and they camped there beside the waters." (Exodus 15:27)

"She used to sit under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the sons of Israel came up to her for judgment." (Judges 4:5)

The Springtime festival of Tabernacles involved living outdoors in leafy shelters, as a reminder of the sojourn in the wilderness. Abundance of palm trees above all made this possible. 

"Now on the first day you shall take for yourselves the foliage of beautiful trees, palm branches and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days. 'You shall thus celebrate it as a feast to the LORD for seven days in the year." (Lev 23:40-41)

Jericho, one of the oldest of human habitations, was sited in an oasis area of the Jordan valley, renowned for its Palm trees.

 "the Negev and the plain in the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar." (Deut 34:3)

Palm branches were carried in the funeral processions of ancient Egypt, symbolising eternal life, and the idea may have carried over into Hebrew culture, as palm trees appeared as a decorative motif in  the account of building Solomon's Temple.

"For the entrance of the inner sanctuary he made doors of olive wood, the lintel and five-sided doorposts. So he made two doors of olive wood, and he carved on them carvings of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers, and overlaid them with gold; and he spread the gold on the cherubim and on the palm trees." (1 Kings 6:31-33)

Palm and olive branches were carried in Roman festive processions celebrating military achievement, and the Palm was associated with Nike, the goddess of victories. Jesus' entry into Jerusalem riding a donkey and hailed by the crowds is reported in all four Gospels with small variations. Matthew and Mark report simply that 'leafy branches' were cut and spread in his path, John alone specifies palm branches. John is the evangelist who interprets the passion and death of Christ as a triumph over sin and evil, hence his allusion to this particular entry into Jerusalem as a victory procession, by referring to the use of Palm branches. 

"They took the branches of the palm trees and went out to meet Him, and began to shout, "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel." (John 12:13)

The sense of celebration and the popularity of Jesus is, however, short lived. Any suggestion that he might be regarded as a King fills the Jewish leadership with anxiety, and a determination to get rid of him before his presence in the holy city causes trouble with their Roman overlords. The fact that Jesus goes on to take action against the money changers in the Temple arouses even more anxiety and resentment against him from the religious authorities, and plotting to turn the crowd of his supporters against him develops. 

The church on this day not only remembers this moment of worldly glory given to Jesus, but reads through one entire version of the Passion story for the first time of this week. Other versions will in their turn  be re-read and re-enacted in the days following, inviting us to listen and learn anew from each the meaning of his death 'for us and for our salvation'.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Lent day 34

In a modern leisure-laden society, beach donkey rides or encounters during a farm visit will for some provide childhood memories of animals that have accompanied human journeys across the earth for the past six millennia.
Lukes' Gospel doesn't mention how Joseph and Mary, heavy with child travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem, nor does it mention which animals were in the stable of the inn where she gave birth, but the use of donkeys as beasts of burden and means of transport already had four thousand years of history behind it since the first wild asses of north east Africa were domesticated and bred by nomadic herders and traders. Donkeys nevertheless are commonplace in Nativity Plays and stories. They are however referred to in many other places in scripture.

The book of Numbers chapter 22 contains a surreal comic folk tale of a speaking donkey whose master Balaam is a diviner, called upon by the king of Moab to pronounce a curse on the children of Israel as they are passing through on their way to the Promised Land. He cannot bring himself to do it, and when he is tempted by the thought of reward to have another try, the donkey stubbornly refuses to allow him to proceed on his way. The donkey can see God's angel barring the way but Balaam cannot, but eventually he comes to this conclusion

"How can I curse whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce whom God has not denounced?" (Num 23:8)

Donkeys were everywhere in the cities and the landscape, both domesticated working animals and wild ones.

"An ox knows its owner, and a donkey its master's manger, But Israel does not know, My people do not understand." (Isaiah 1:3)

"He sends forth springs in the valleys; They flow between the mountains; They give drink to every beast of the field; The wild donkeys quench their thirst." (Ps 104:10-11)

As robust hardworking beasts of burden they could be badly treated, left to die when old and weak. In times of famine, and among the poor, they would be taken for meat. In the hands of Samson, the jawbone of a dead animal picked up in a field becomes a mass murder weapon.

"He found a fresh jawbone of a donkey, so he reached out and took it and killed a thousand men with it." (Judges 15:15)

Those who are more privileged and wealthy get to ride a tamed one as a status symbol. They get a passing mention in Deborah's victory hymn.

"You who ride on white donkeys, you who sit on rich carpets, and you who travel on the road - sing!" (Judges 5:10)

Zechariah foresees the arrival of God's anointed Messiah into the holy city in a triumphal procession, as he comes to restore the fortunes of his people.

"Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, Humble, and mounted on a donkey, Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey." (Zech 9:9)

The evangelists considered this prophecy fulfilled when Jesus entered Jerusalem publicly for the last time to the acclaim of the people. Jesus is portrayed preparing for this moment thus:

"When they had come near .... Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied there and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to Me." " (Matt 21:2)

Matthew cites Zecharaiah 9:9 in full commenting

"This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet." (Matt 21:4)

G K Chesterton's poem gives a donkey's testimony to the experience of being part of the story of humanity. Read it here. It fits well with what St Paul says about God's mysterious way of working.

"God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God." (1 Cor 1:27-9)

Friday, 27 March 2015

Lent day 33

God as creator of that exists is the source of life in all its fullness. One marvellous things that sustains life in face of adversity is the capacity of the human body to self-repair after injury and recover from sicknesses of many kinds. The body deteriorates with age and eventually dies, but healing of wounds and recovery from sickness is an experience common to all humanity. Medical science gives us deep insight into physical healing processes, and yet there is still a mysterious elusive element about the way mechanisms which produce healing will work with one person and not another. 

Not without reason has healing long been regarded as a divine gift, no matter what medicinal means, or special conditions applied, (whether magical and primitive or modern scientific), to ensure it can happen. Those who help others to get well and return to active life again have long been regarded as people with a God-given healing gift, regardless of what they actually offer to a sick person.

There are dozens of verses in the bible that are concerned with the healing of people, also many prayers, notably in the book of Psalms. Here are three typical examples 

"Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress. He sent forth his word and healed them; he rescued them from the grave. Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for men." (Psalm 107:19-21)

"O Lord my God, I called to you for help and you healed me." (Psalm 30:2)

"The Lord will protect him and preserve his life; he will bless him in the land and not surrender him to the desire of his foes. The Lord will sustain him on his sickbed and restore him from his bed of illness." (Psalm 41:2-3)

The prayer uttered in the next verse of this Psalm mentions something important in terms of the relationship between healing and forgiveness. 

"As for me, I said, "O Lord, be gracious to me; heal my soul, for I have sinned against you." (Psalm 41:4)

Sin, can be best understood as the cause of suffering - both sin as willful transgression of 'the maker's instructions', and sin which is not intended to cause suffering, but is simply the result of ignorance or misfortune from whose consequences there is no defence. Humans sin against others and are sinned against, Sin is sickness of the soul needing both pardon for offences and healing for a wounded spirit, of the afflicted are to become whole and return to enjoy fullness of life once more.
This unusual image of Jesus about to heal a paralysed man whose bed has been lowered down through the roof of the place where he is teaching, depicts an occasion when Jesus discloses the unity of healing and forgiveness in God's providence, both in debate and action.

"Which is easier, to say, 'Your sins have been forgiven you,' or to say, 'Get up and walk'? But, so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,"-- He said to the paralytic-- "I say to you, get up, and pick up your stretcher and go home." (Luke 5:23-4)

"Heal me, O LORD, and I will be healed; save me and I will be saved, for you are the one I praise. "(Jer 17:14)

God is to be praised because  "He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds." (Psalm 147:3), albeit through the ministry of compassionate and gifted others. 

The ministry of Jesus is one of teaching, and encouraging people to be reconciled with God and each other. so that peace and wholeness is achieved according to God's will 'on earth as it is in heaven'. Reconciliation and the practice of forgiveness are about healing of broken relationships, but Jesus' ministry is not so limited. He heals sick individuals to empower them as witnesses to God's grace 

"But the man from whom the demons had gone out was begging Jesus that he might accompany him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, "Return to your house and describe what great things God has done for you." So he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city what great things Jesus had done for him." (Luke 8:38-9)

Healing enabled sufferers to take their rightful place in society again, since many kinds of personal sickness in the ancient world, if not today, estrange sufferers from everyday life. Every aspect of the ministry of Jesus declares the Good News that God is reconciling the whole world to himself, that He wants to heal the broken relationship between Himself and humankind, both sinning and sinned against, since left to ourselves this results in self destruction. Jesus offered to all who listened to him a new life with God through forgiveness and healing, but in the end this offer was rejected as he himself was turned against, betrayed and unjustly killed. In the act of dying, Jesus forgave all who rejected God in him. The truth he lived and died for was upheld by his resurrection from death. 

Jesus sought to make real in his own life the role of the suffering servant Messiah figure of Isaiah's poetry, (Isaiah 42-53). Naturally his disciples, in telling Jesus' story and proclaiming his resurrection, turned to this passage to help interpret the meaning of his life and death. Whilst it is not the only reference of healing in the prophet's writing, it is by far the most significiant, declaring to the reader.

"... he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed." (Isaiah 53:5)

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Lent day 32

Today's disclosure that the tragic Airbus crash in the French Alps Maritimes causing the death of 150 people was the result of a deliberate act by one of pilots makes it a mass murder accompanied by the suicide of the perpetrator. For me this brought to mind the final act of Samson in the Book of Judges.

"And Samson called unto the Lord, and said, O Lord God, remember me, I pray thee, and strengthen me, I pray thee, only this once, O God, that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes. And Samson took hold of the two middle pillars upon which the house stood, and on which it was borne up, of the one with his right hand, and of the other with his left. And Samson said, Let me die with the Philistines. And he bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein. So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life." (Judges 16:28-30)
Samson was a man of violence, an appalling character, nothing virtuous about him, yet regarded as an Israelite hero, championing his people's right to exist in the Promised Land, among the population of tribes who shared their name with the land, Philistia, that may have been much more sophisticated than these rough and ready nomads, looking to settle down, in the same region. 

St Paul quotes the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32:35 in warning the faithful against vengeance and retaliation, it's a precept of Mosaic teaching ignored countless times, or else its justification has been argued from circumstances. Paul is convinced that Christ's way of pardon and reconciliation is the right path for his disciples to follow, to break the deadly cycle of evil, and suffering so destructive in human relationships. We have to learn not to react to events but let them take their course in God's mysterious providence. 

"Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord." (Rom 10:9)

God's wrath is not as simple as an expression of anger or outrage with devastating consequences, but rather a way of thinking about the consequences of evil having their own ultimately deadly cycle of causes with unavoidable effects. Paul summarises thus in Romans 6:23 "The wages of sin is death.

Samson's self inflicted death is not the only one in scripture. Abimelech in Judges 9:54, also Saul and his armour bearer in 1 Sam 31:3-6  are wounded in battle and call upon their servants to shorten their suffering and disgraceful weakness by killing them. Saul's armour bearer then kills himself. This is no different from the behaviour of the warrior classes in many other ancient cultures, men wanting to be spared shame by having their mortal weakness exposed and their heroic reputation besmirched. It is ultimately no more than an expression of male vanity sustained by the prevailing culture.

Zimri became king of Israel in a murderous palace coup, (1 Kings 16:10) but the army rejected his bid for power, electing Omri as their sovereign, so Zimri sets the royal palace on fire and dies in the blaze. In 2 Sam 17:23, Ahithopel finds himself disgraced and rejected as Absalom's advisor, so goes home, puts his affairs in order and then hangs himself, and this too is the course of action taken by Judas Iscariot, overcome with remorse when he realises that his cunning plan to hand Jesus over to the Jewish authorities and force a convincing display of power in the confrontation that follows, goes disastrously wrong. He attempts to return the bribe he took for information leading to Jesus' arrest, and his action is rejected with contempt.

"Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, Saying, I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood. And they said, What is that to us? see thou to that. And he cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself." (Matt 27:3-5) 

Human pride generate illusions of knowledge and power, and a sense of superiority over others that leads to the worship of god made in our own flawed image. Those in scripture who killed themselves were people of self-belief, power and influence generated by their own ambition. When truth burst the bubble of illusion, they found themselves weakened and ashamed, then acted as judge and jury on themselves, taking their own lives, rather than submitting to God's judgment, in which the hope of mercy always remains. 

People also kill themselves, or let themselves fade and die un-necessarily because they are sick and no longer want to care for themselves. The despair and pain of living longer becomes unbearable. The Psalms are full of the pleas of those who are weak, vulnerable, oppressed, outcast, pleas which conclude by expressing trust in God's ability to vindicate those who suffer. These are the prayers of survivors. 

Those who do not survive, unable to express trust in what is beyond themselves, have no voice. Effectively they give up facing themselves and God, and let themselves go to nothing. It's not what God intends, but that's how it is for many. Opinion in Judaism was divided about life after death, if not the value and meaning of life itself.

"It is not the dead who praise the Lord, they go down to the place of silence. But as for us, we will bless the Lord from this time forth and forever more." (Psalm 115:17-18)

The 'us' here is those who choose life, even in the face of death. Jesus tackled the issue in his unique way. 

"But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the burning bush, where he calls the Lord 'the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.' Now He is not the God of the dead but of the living; for all live to Him."  (Luke 20:37-8)

Does this extend to those who reject life and reject God? Or does God always leave a way open for them to return? There is so much that we have yet to learn.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Lent day 31

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation of the Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary, a festive occasion in the midst of Lenten seriousness. 
St Luke portrays the angel Gabriel speaking to Mary about God's favourable regard for her. She is the one chosen to become the mother of him who will be Son of God, the divine Word in human flesh. In simple and humble trust she consents, saying

"Here I am, the servant of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word." (Luke 1:38)

These words echo Psalm 40: 7-8, quoted in Hebrews 10:7, part of the explanation develop there of the meaning of Christ's self-sacrifice.

"Sacrifice and meal offering You have not desired; My ears You have opened; Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required. Then I said, "Behold, I come; In the scroll of the book it is written of me. I delight to do Your will, O my God; Your Law is within my heart." (Ps 40:6-8)

Luke is well aware of the importance of Isaiah's Servant Song in the spirituality of Jesus, something he would have learned as he grew up at home with his family, from his mother. Her devotion to God led her to see herself as His servant (handmaid), so her trusting response to this angelic encounter is understandably natural.

When Jesus is presented for dedication in the Temple after his birth Simeon speaks about his destiny and that of his mother. It's another kind of annunciation, one that heralds the passion from afar.

"Simeon blessed them and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed and a sword will pierce even your own soul—to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” " (Luke 2:34-35)

Mary does not protest in any way about this added, less agreeable dimension to her destiny. She does express distress at the thought of losing him when he goes missing during a Temple pilgrimage journey home, aged twelve (Luke 2:41-50), but once normality is returned the story says of Mary:

"His mother treasured all these things in her heart." (Luke 2:51b)

There is a particular group according to Luke that gathers by the crosses erected on Golgotha, allowed to draw near presumably because they were not considered a threat. These were  

"the women who had followed him from Galilee" (Luke 24:49)

Luke also says they are the ones who take charge of performing his burial rites.

"The women who had come with him from Galilee followed and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned and prepared spices and ointments." (Luke 24:55-56) 

John actually identifies Mary as one of the women who is there during Jesus' final agony, but she says nothing.

"Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene." (John 19:25)

Simply in being there, she fulfils Simeon's prophecy thirty three years earlier.

Mary is simply present one more time, at prayer with the Apostles after Jesus' ascension, waiting with them for the promised Spirit.

"All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary, the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers." (Acts 1:14)

After her terrible time of sorrow and separation, she is re-united with her son, raised to life in vindication of his obedience and trust. Her delight in doing God's will is restored forever.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Lent day 30

The Epistle for Passion Sunday in the 1984 Welsh Book of Common Prayer opens with these words. It was read at the celebration of the Eucharist in St James' Tongwynlais today. Coincidentally, I preached my first sermon at Evensong on this text as a theological student forty eight years ago in this church.

"For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake." (2 Cor 4:5)

The concept of service and those who carry it out can be represented by very many different images. A servant looks after the material needs of others, providing food, clean clothing, help to wash, dress, or physical support to get around if this is needed. A servant is employed to put the needs of another before their own, and for most of human history this role has carried a low social status, or none at all if the servant is compelled to perform duties for others because they have debts that cannot be repaid no matter how much they work to pay them off. Or, they have been sold into slavery, like Joseph:

“Come and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers listened to him. Then some Midianite traders passed by, so they pulled him up and lifted Joseph out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. Thus they brought Joseph into Egypt. " (Gen 37:27)

Joseph earned his liberty through his wise insight and planning ability. Like many others he came to a valued position of trust. Slaves and servants could become part of an extended family or clan, and weren't always traded on by their masters. They may have had material security, but could be without rights over their own bodies. Abraham's son Ishmael was born to a surrogate mother.

"Now Sarai, Abram’s wife had borne him no children, and she had an Egyptian maid whose name was Hagar. So Sarai said to Abram, “Now behold, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children. Please go in to my maid; perhaps I will obtain children through her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai." (Gen 16:1-2)

They could even inherit a portion of family wealth, and take on the clan identity as happened when all the males in Abraham's clan were circumcised

"Then Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all the servants who were born in his house and all who the were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s household, and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the very same day" (Gen 17:23)

Slavery and bonded labour were so commonplace that the Torah sets some guidelines for the humane treatment of those who are not free, on the oft repeated precept 'Remember you once were slaves'.  The New Testament writings presume slavery and bonded servanthood to be unavoidable aspects of the social status quo. The moral obligations of master-slave relationships are expressed by St Paul, in the understanding that there are higher things at stake than social status. 

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. (Col 3:22)

"Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free. And masters, do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him." (Eph 6:5-9)

"Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord's freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ's slave. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men." (1 Cor 7:21-23)

Paul works with the image of slavery to show the difference that the grace of God can make to transform a human being.

"Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification." (Rom 6:16-19)

The Greek word 'doulos' equally applies to a hired servant as it does to slave. The term 'servant' is used to refer to those who help those in authority. All who dedicate their lives to their King, or to God as King, are regarded as servants, out of devotion or obligation. There are also many instances of people voluntarily dedicating themselves to the servant role for the benefit of others.

"Truly I am your servant, Lord; I serve you just as my mother did; you have freed me from my chains." (Ps 116:6)

I am your servant; give me discernment that I may understand your statutes. (Ps 119:25)

This usage passes into the Gospels, notably

"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour, for he has looked with favour on his lowly servant, from this day forward, all generations will call me blessed." (Luke 1:46)

"Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in in peace, according to thy word."(Luke 2:29)

Several of Jesus' parables refer to relationships between master and slaves, but it's the way that Jesus identifies with the image of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah's poetry that is the foundation of the Good News as preached by his apostles. The strongest indication of this is here, where Jesus is responding to a dispute about status among his disciples.

"Jesus said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)

"For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves." (Luke 22:27)

And here in dispute with the scribes and pharisees

"Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. 11"But the greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted." (Matt 23:10-12)

Servant is a title attributed to Jesus in a prayer by the disciples 

"Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus." (Acts 4:30)

Acts 8:32 directly quotes Isaiah 53:7-8 showing that the Servant Song was a key part of the earliest apostolic preaching.

Paul speaks of Jesus emptying himself of divine characteristics in order to identify with humanity in his suffering from sin, who

"made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness" (Phil 4:7)

The most eloquent metaphorical image of Jesus taking upon himself the form of a servant is when he washes his disciples' feet at the Last Supper (John 13:1-15)
But this action declares the equality of of all in the fellowship of God's kingdom, but in a way that challenges every person of faith to take responsibility for freely offering themselves in service to others.

"If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him." (John 13:14-16)

We live no longer for ourselves but for the sake of him who died and rose again for us. We live to point the world to Christ, saviour of us all.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Lent day 29

In today's John's Gospel, Jesus is portrayed disputing with Temple teachers and leaders about the nature of his authority, and his claim to an close relationship with God, whom he regards as a witness confirming the truth he proclaims. It's in this context he declares.

 “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”(John 8:12)
This precedes the story in the next chapter of the healing of the man born blind, where this statement is repeated.

While I am in the world, I am the light of the world." (John 9:5)

It's not the first time the association of Jesus with light has been presented in this Gospel. It occurs in the discourse after his night meeting with Nicodemus, where he offers this strategic analysis of the fallen human condition.

"This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil." (John 3:19)

The first section of John's first chapter is not part of the narrative, but a formal introduction, a prologue to the whole Gospel message, proclaiming Jesus to be the incarnate Son and Word of God. This is where the association of Jesus and light begins.

"In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it." (John 1:4)

The prologue also introduces John the Baptist, identifying him relation to Jesus who is the light.

"There came a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to testify about the Light, so that all might believe through him. 8He was not the Light, but he came to testify about the Light." (John 1:6-7)

God in the moment of creation is proclaimed to be the author of light. 

"And God said "Let there be light." And there was light." (Genesis 1:3)

This idea is modified later in the first Johannine Epistle, where God is identified with what his Word created.

"God is light, in him there is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while walking in darkness, we lie, and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light, we have fellowship with one another ..." (1 John 1:5b:7b)

As his passion approaches, John portrays Jesus speaking in these terms

"You are going to have the light just a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you. Whoever walks in the dark does not know where they are going. Believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of light." When he had finished speaking, Jesus left and hid himself from them. (John 12:35-6)

I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.
(John 12:46)

In what he says metaphorically speaking its clear that he understands himself to be God the Father's only Son. This is the truth by which he lives, and it is the basis on which he sacrifices his life. His truth, at a spiritual and moral level puts all human existence and behaviour under scrutiny, not just because he is a manifestation of the divine, but because he has fully taken upon himself human nature. He is the 'proper' man, the archetype of genuine humanity, reveal what human beings can be and can achieve when they walk in the light of divine truth.

From Jesus's teaching in Matthew's Gospel, however, comes a statement which is even more challenging, because of the way it identifies us with him.
"You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden... let your light so shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." (Matt 5:14 & 16)

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Passion Sunday

The most striking image of today comes from the Gospel read at the Eucharist. Jesus is portrayed in the Temple speaking with some of his disciples, alluding to his death and its eventual outcome. 

"Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." (John 12:24) 
This single grain of spelt, an ancient strain of wheat, is the width of a fingernail. We're used to seeing them in large numbers and associate them with sowing and harvesting. Alone like this, its potential is unrecognisable. Cast into soil it seems lost, yet while out of sight in the darkness of its natural environment, it soon begins its growth into a mature plant in which this seed is replicated hundreds of times over. Domestication of wild wheat is thought to have begun 9,500 years ago. Globally, it is the main source of vegetable protein in the human diet. It finds mention in scripture almost forty times.

"For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing forth in valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey " (Deut 8:7-8)

God's Promised Land is a a fertile place where wheat and barley crops have already been cultivated for over six thousand years. The rhythms of sowing and harvesting, and the ritual celebrations that accompany this punctuate the passage of the year.

"This is the offering that you shall offer: a sixth of an ephah from a homer of wheat; a sixth of an ephah from a homer of barley" (Ezek 45:13)

"You shall celebrate the Feast of Weeks, that is, the first fruits of the wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the turn of the year." (Exod 34:22)

Having enough wheat to meet everyone's need was considered a blessing from God worthy of praise.

"Praise the LORD, O Jerusalem! Praise your God, O Zion! For He has strengthened the bars of your gates; He has blessed your sons within you. He makes peace in your borders; He satisfies you with the finest of the wheat." (Ps 147:12-14)

Abundance of wheat at harvest time gave farmers an opportunity to be generous to poorer neighbours by allowing them to follow the reapers and collect up stalks of grain discarded or missed entirely as was the case with the widowed Ruth

"So she stayed close by the maids of Boaz in order to glean until the end of the barley harvest and the wheat harvest. And she lived with her mother-in-law." (Ruth 2:23)

John the Baptist speaks of Jesus as one who will come like a harvester and sort out the wheat from the chaff.

"His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." (Matt 3:11-12)

In warning Peter that his own impetuosity puts him at risk, Jesus returns to this image, but uses it quite differently.

"Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers." (Luke 22:31-2)

He speaks about separating wheat and weeds at the right time in a parable about divine judgement.

"He presented another parable to them, saying, "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. "But while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went away. But when the wheat sprouted and bore grain, then the tares became evident also." (Matt 13:24-30)

Wheat was ground into flour for consumption as bread, and some of it became a thank-offering to God in appreciation for his bounty. Also at Passover, unleavened wheat bread was a feature of the celebration commemorating God's people's deliverance from captivity in Egypt. 

"... unleavened bread and unleavened cakes mixed with oil, and unleavened wafers spread with oil; you shall make them of fine wheat flour. You shall put them in one basket, and present them in the basket along with the bull and the two rams. " (Exodus 29:2-3)

At the last supper Jesus followed Passover custom. The bread he blessed was made of wheat. Paul repeats what he's learned, from the other Apostles, repeating what is stated in the first three Gospels

"For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread" (1 Cor 11:23)

And when Paul strives to explain the resurrection of the dead he falls back on an image which has already been made familiar by Jesus in speaking about about the meaning of his own death.

"... that which you sow, you do not sow the body which is to be, but a bare grain, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body just as He wished, and to each of the seeds a body of its own." (1 Cor 15:37-8)
The most profound significance has become attached to the most commonplace of earth's foodstuffs, and not without good reason, to keep us mindful of all God has done for us.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Lent day 28

Today is the day of the Spring equinox, the first of the two occasions in the year when day and night are of approximately equal length. The sun is at its zenith, exactly overhead, on the Equator.
The orderly passage of time, with all its in-built variations due to the irregularities of heavenly bodies and their orbits, has a constancy and consistency in which human beings find security an refuge in the vast cosmos of which earth is but a tiny part. Space, time, matter and energy are all God's essential gifts in creation.

"Yours is the day, Yours also is the night; You have prepared the light and the sun. You have established all the boundaries of the earth; You have made summer and winter." (Psalm 74:16)

Nothing about the created order is without meaning and purpose, even if it's sometimes difficult to understand what it is. All time and all eternity belong to God.

"For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing ... " (Eccl 3:1-8)

Signs of Spring growth are evident all around us. It is indeed a favourable time for sowing seeds or planting. In the Promised Land it's time to pray for the blessing of fertility that comes with the rain

"Ask rain from the Lord in the season of the spring rain, from the Lord who makes the storm clouds, and he will give them showers of rain, to everyone the vegetation in the field." (Zech 10:1)

It's a time to celebrate the power of the Creator's action that restores beauty to the landscape and songs of joy to the hearts of his children, whose lives are also being renewed.

"The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God." (Is 35:1-3)

It's a time when love and desire are re-awakened in many creatures, but above all for humankind.

"For behold, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land." (Song of Songs 2:11-12)

It is a time to renew one's courage and confidence in God to face up to endeavours or challenges that have ended in failure or which remain uncompleted

"Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.” Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped ... " (Is 35:4-6)

Because it's the season so strongly associated with renewal, it's is when the story of the Exodus from Egypt is set, and when the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus takes place. When Jesus is seen transfigured by Peter James and John, it's just before he sets off for the last time to go to Jerusalem.

"And behold, two men were talking with Him; and they were Moses and Elijah, who, appearing in glory, were speaking of His departure (Greek = Exodus) which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem." (Luke 9:30-1)

The coming of Spring can lead to pain as well as to joy. But, as Job responded to his wife when she criticised him for not complaining about his misfortunes. 

"Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?(Job 2:10)

Friday, 20 March 2015

Lent day 27

In this era, of technological advance exploration of the universe by astronomical methods has revealed objects of awesome beauty beyond anything previously devised by human imagination in far distant places. Rather closer to planet earth, however, the more local spectacle of an eclipse of the sun is now enjoyed by billions of people. It's a matter of interest, fascinating not just to scientists but to the public at large. It's a far cry from how eclipses were perceived in biblical times.
Cosmic darkness in the mind of the prophets was a sign of the approaching Day of the Lord, when all humankind would be called to give an account of itself in the face of divine judgement. He who caused light to shine before bringing all things in being, would cause darkness to return.

"And when I extinguish you, I will cover the heavens and darken their stars; I will cover the sun with a cloud And the moon will not give its light.(Ezekiel 32:7)
"For the stars of heaven and their constellations will not flash forth their light; The sun will be dark when it rises, and the moon will not shed its light." (Isaiah 13:10)

The advent of darkness would be an occasion of fear and trembling, not only for people but also for the cosmos. The prophet Joel makes much of this, apparently drawing on the eclipse experience, but going further speaking of all consuming darkness, twice mentioning the disappearance of starlight.

Before them the earth quakes, The heavens tremble, The sun and the moon grow dark And the stars lose their brightness. (Joel 2:10)
"The sun will be turned into darkness And the moon into blood Before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. (Joel 2:31)
"The sun and moon grow dark And the stars lose their brightness." (Joel 3:15)

No stars are visible if there's a mist on a moonless night, and in the absence of artificial light, sky and land merge, the horizon disappears. Such disorientation arouses great fear and a sense of complete vulnerability in all who rely on landmarks and other visual clues to know if they are safe or not. 

Like the prophets of Israel, Mark and Matthew speak about the coming day of the Lord and the end of the world in dramatic terms. Whenever it will happen, it will be preceded by upheaval, conflict and dramatic environmental changes, all heralded by eclipse imagery.

"In those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give light" (Mark 13:24)
"But immediately after the tribulation of those days, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Matthew 24:29

The Letter to the Hebrews urges readers to heed and obey God's voice, citing Psalm 95:7b-8a

"We have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end, as has just been said: "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion." (Heb 3:14-15)

See to it that you do not refuse Him who is speaking. For if those did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape who turn away from Him who warns from heaven. And His voice shook the earth then, but now He has promised, saying, at that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, "Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens." (Heb 12:25-6)

The sound and content of what God's voice utters has such immense power that it has an impact on the whole of the created order. While these passages present a very anthropomorphic image of the divine, the writer was not so naive. The utterance of God's voice is the Word through which all things have the being, their meaning and purpose.

The darkness at noon that envelops the crucifixion of Jesus is not directly associated with an eclipse or any other natural phenomenon, but from the darkness Jesus utters the prayer of the persecuted man on the verge of death from Psalm 22:1. 

"Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Matt 27:45-6)

Quotation of this phrase draws attention to Jesus' sense of God-forsakenness, yet to listeners well versed in Hebrew scripture, it is moment of eclipse, for this Psalm that plumbs the depths of inner darkness re-emerges into the light of trust, appealing to God for deliverance and praising God for his grace in vindicating his people and delivering them from their tribulations - eventually.

"I will declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee. Ye that fear the Lord, praise him; all ye the seed of Jacob, glorify him;and fear him, all ye the seed of Israel.
For he hath not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; neither hath he hid his face from him; but when he cried unto him, he heard." (Psalm 22:22-4)

The final book of the New Testament scriptures, contains an extensive detailed working out of the Day of the Lord. Its strange literary style has some of the characteristics of prophetic oracles and visions disguising a message of victorious hope and endurance in the face of persecution. Its Greek name Apocalypse means 'from what is hidden', a disclosure of secret knowledge of God's ways.

It is not the only 'apocalyptic' text to emerge from a violent era of political pessimism and social upheaval, but it rises above despair in its affirmation of the victory of the resurrected Christ over sin, evil and the power of death - a victory of ultimate significance for both heaven and earth. Once more the motif of eclipse is linked with environmental catastrophe, conflict turmoil and suffering.

"I looked when He broke the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth made of hair, and the whole moon became like blood " (Rev 6:12)

"The fourth angel sounded, and a third of the sun and a third of the moon and a third of the stars were struck, so that a third of them would be darkened and the day would not shine for a third of it, and the night in the same way." (Rev 8:12)

But at the end of story envisioned by John the seer, un-eclipsable light in all its fullness returns, with the re-creation of heaven and earth in which humankind and God will dwell together eternally.

"There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever." (Rev 22:5)

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Lent Day 26

After the severest of pruning in late winter, the first leaves appear on the grapevine, as Spring warmth returns to bless the earth with signs of new life.

For Hebrew people, to sit under the shade of one's vine and/or fig tree was a common expression of living in peace and well being - of shalom. 

"Each of them will sit under his vine And under his fig tree, With no one to make them afraid, For the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken." (Micah 4:4)

"'Do not listen to Hezekiah,' for thus says the king of Assyria, 'Make your peace with me and come out to me, and eat each of his vine and each of his fig tree and drink each of the waters of his own cistern " (Is 36:16)

The flourishing of the vine was a symbol of the divine blessing of peace and prosperity.

"Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine Within your house, Your children like olive plants Around your table." (Psalm 128:3)

God promises to protect his faithful children's vines and fruit from pestilence and disease. 

"Then I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not destroy the fruits of the ground; nor will your vine in the field cast its grapes," says the LORD of hosts. (Mal 3:11) 

When the desert wandering Hebrew tribes entered the land of God's promise, many settled down and cultivated the land as well as keeping animal herds. Natural vines provided some fruit for free, but the labour of well managed cultivation produced great abundance, yielding a harvest for both eating and drinking. The vine became a symbol of God's blessing, both in creation, and in the liberation of his people from bondage in Egypt. It appeared in decorative art in both secular and sacred settings.

"The LORD then spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai, saying, "Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, 'When you come into the land which I shall give you, then the land shall have a sabbath to the LORD. 'Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its crop " (Lev 25:1-5)

"For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing forth in valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey " (Deut 8:7-8)

The withering of the vine, so ready to flourish in the toughest of circumstances, is seen by the prophets as a curse upon those who failed to keep their covenant with God, in these and half a dozen similar verses in which it is a symptom of environmental catastrophe due to war or drought.

"I will surely snatch them away," declares the LORD; "There will be no grapes on the vine And no figs on the fig tree, And the leaf will wither; And what I have given them will pass away." "(Jerem 8:13) 

And it will come about in that day, that every place where there used to be a thousand vines, valued at a thousand shekels of silver, will become briars and thorns. (Is 7:23)

The vine becomes a symbol of God's people and their land.

"You removed a vine from Egypt; You drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground before it, And it took deep root and filled the land." (Psalm 80:8-9)

"O God of hosts, turn again now, we beseech You; Look down from heaven and see, and take care of this vine, Even the shoot which Your right hand has planted" (Psalm 80:14-15)

"For a nation has invaded my land .... It has laid waste my vines and ruined my fig trees. It has stripped off their bark and thrown it away, leaving their branches white." (Joel 1:7)

Isaiah's parable of the vineyard imagines God as the vine dresser and the vineyard as the land and people of Israel, whose unfruitfulness  reflects their unfaithfulness towards Him.

"Let me sing now for my well-beloved A song of my beloved concerning His vineyard. My well-beloved had a vineyard on a fertile hill. He dug it all around, removed its stones, And planted it with the choicest vine And He built a tower in the middle of it And also hewed out a wine vat in it; Then He expected it to produce good grapes, But it produced only worthless ones."  (Is 5:1-2)

Jesus draws directly upon the imagery in this parable, in telling a parable of his own (Matthew 21:33-46; Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-19), in which God is the vineyard owner who entrusts it to tenants that betray him in order to deprive him of the benefit of his fruitful investment in time and effort. Its message is that God ultimately cannot be cheated of what is rightfully his. It is important in understanding meaning of the passion of Jesus, as it is just about to unfold.

John proclaims Jesus as God's Son and one of his great symbols in the 'I AM' sayings is that of the vine, with its different layers of meaning. There are echoes of the above parables, and an indication of the purpose behind God's judgement.

“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit." (John 15:1-2)

Then Jesus suggests the vine as a symbol of inter-relationship between himself and his disciples. Outside of this relationship with God in and through him, there is no fruitfulness, only condemnation to destruction.

“I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned." (John 15:5-6)

As one who had seen Jesus' ministry right through and lived long to reflect on his teaching and the meaning of all that he had witnessed, John's message is uncompromising.

"Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life." (1 John 5:12)

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on them. (John 3:36)

The essential relationship in the vine of parts to the whole, as in any fruit bearing plant or tree is a constant reminder to all of our utter dependency upon God for our existence and all it contains.